Lions Year in Review
2014 Pass Attempts Rank: 11th (604)
2014 Rush Attempts Rank: 25th (396)
2014 Total Offensive Plays Rank: 11th (1,045)
2014 Yards Per Play Rank: 21st (5.2)
Check out the team-by-team fantasy preview schedule.
Projected Starting Lineup
QB: Matthew Stafford
RB: Ameer Abdullah
WR: Calvin Johnson
WR: Golden Tate
TE: Eric Ebron
TE: Brandon Pettigrew
LT: Riley Reiff
LG: Laken Tomlinson
C: Travis Swanson
RG: Larry Warford
RT: Cornelius Lucas
Passing Game Outlook
Similar to its treatment of Ryan Tannehill last offseason, the fantasy community is presently down on Matthew Stafford, an inefficient passer whose first season under OC Joe Lombardi was rocky and exacerbated by Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush's injury-plagued campaigns, as well as a poor debut from Eric Ebron. Still only 27, Stafford enters year two of Lombardi's system with a healthy Megatron, hopefully-more-mature Ebron, and a coaching staff that promises to run the ball more in hopes of minimizing Stafford's wildness and creating a more consistent, chain-moving attack. Stafford did rally a bit down last season's stretch, posting a 9:2 TD-to-INT ratio with a healthy Calvin in Detroit's final five regular season games. Stafford has finished as a top-12 fantasy QB in three of his last four seasons, mixing in two top-seven efforts. While Stafford may never recapture his 41-touchdown form of the 2011 lockout-affected season, I like his chances of taking a 2015 step forward with a healthy Megatron.
An ankle injury cost Calvin Johnson three games and rendered him a decoy in others early last season. His remaining ability showed up in a healthy second half, posting a receiving line that would extrapolate to 98-1,458-12 over 16 games. My opinion is Megatron doesn't look quite as explosive off the line of scrimmage and straight-line fast on tape as he once was, but that can be difficult to assess with bigger receivers, and I'm confident he has plenty left to still qualify as a top-five WR1. The Lions' offense seems likely to improve in its second year under OC Joe Lombardi, and Johnson remains the focal point. Even going on age 30, Megatron offers a great floor and monstrous ceiling. He's a value pick at his round-two ADP.
Golden Tate's career-best 2014 stat line looks terrific on paper, but keep in mind those numbers were spiked by an increased role in the games Calvin Johnson missed or was used as a decoy. Tate's receiving pace was an otherworldly 125-1,917-10 in those five contests, compared to 87-1,065-2 in the 11 others. Three of Tate's four TDs came in the games where Johnson was limited or missing, and Tate topped 100 yards four times during that stretch compared to just once in the other 11. Tate will be a useful fantasy wideout this year, but his targets and stats are going to take a hit. He's best viewed as a high-floor, low-ceiling WR2/3.
Eric Ebron entered the league as a decidedly raw, 21-year-old third-year junior prospect with big athletic upside but inconsistent college film. Ebron spent his first NFL season as a part-time player and posted a 54.3% catch rate, which ranked 63rd among 67 qualified tight ends in Pro Football Focus' ratings. Ebron is big and fast with sneaky lateral movement to his game, but the jury is very much out entering year two. At times, Ebron seemed averse to fighting for the ball in traffic, and he continued to have issues with dropped passes during OTAs. Keep in mind rookie tight ends invariably struggle, and Ebron's profile coming out of North Carolina very strongly hinted he would, too. My guess is we see incremental improvement in Ebron's second year, but not quite to the extent that he emerges as a trustworthy fantasy starter.
Running Game Outlook
There are a number of red flags common amongst running backs that should be avoided in fantasy: Age, health, ineffectiveness, and more talented players on the depth chart behind them. Joique Bell enters 2015 with all four. He turns 29 before the season. He missed all of OTAs and minicamp following knee and Achilles' surgeries, after having an additional knee surgery last offseason. Bell has averaged 3.88 yards per carry over the last two years. The draft brought second-round pick Ameer Abdullah, an explosive playmaker with some Ray Rice to his game. Despite all this, Lions beat writers expect Bell to open this season as the Lions' starter. Even if he gets that far, it's hard to imagine Bell's lead-back grip lasting long.
A terrific NFL prospect from both a game-film and metrics standpoint, Ameer Abdullah was a playmaking all-purpose workhorse at Nebraska, averaging 6.06 YPC over his final two college seasons, registering the highest SPARQ score among running backs at the NFL Combine, and offering an elite combination of lateral agility and lower-body explosion. Abdullah was one of the best all-around football players I watched play intensely before the draft, running between the tackles with determined decisiveness and turning should-be short gains into longer runs. Abdullah needs to clean up his pass protection and ball security, though those are common deficiencies amongst college backs. Already a favorite of the Lions' coaching staff, Abdullah handled first-team OTA and minicamp reps while Joique Bell nursed multiple surgeries. Abdullah seems likely to emerge as Detroit's lead back before midseason. Dynamic in space and able to run inside, Abdullah has the traits of a fantasy difference maker.
I watched almost every game Theo Riddick played at Notre Dame, where he converted from slot receiver to tailback and was an inferior runner by every measure to eventual UDFA Cierre Wood, who is currently out of the league. Riddick's calling card certainly is not his running ability; he's earned 29 carries through two NFL seasons and averaged 2.62 yards per tote. Riddick can be useful as lightly used receiver out of the backfield, where he posted receiving lines of 5-75-1, 8-74-1, 6-54-0, and 5-34-1 in spot duty last year. Essentially a poor man's Shane Vereen, Riddick's passing-game usefulness is threatened by his poor pass protection and could be rendered moot by Ameer Abdullah, who is just as good a receiving weapon, if not better. Riddick could flirt with PPR value this season if Joique Bell or Abdullah goes down. Most likely, Riddick will handle minimal snaps per game as the clear-cut No. 3 running back.
Vegas Win Total
The Lions' 2015 Win Total is 8.5, one year removed from an 11-5 campaign where they broke in two new coordinators and a new head coach, dealt with a five-week ankle injury to Calvin Johnson, and fielded a bottom-five running game. They aggressively addressed the latter weakness in the draft, selecting power-blocking LG Laken Tomlinson in round one and playmaking RB Ameer Abdullah at No. 54. Their big defensive losses were on the interior line, where they will replace Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, and C.J. Mosley with Haloti Ngata, Tyrunn Walker, and Caraun Reid. I don't think the Lions will continue playing league-best run defense, but I do think DC Teryl Austin's unit will remain rock solid and am confident their offense will make 2015 strides. I like Detroit to finish in the range of 9-10 victories this year.